Pronghorns of the Third Reich (3 page)

Peebles testified that in 1936 they were hired by a rancher named Wendell Oaks to help round up his scattered cattle. This was an unusual request, and they learned Oaks had been left high-and-dry by all of his ranch-hands because he hadn’t paid them for two months. Oaks had lost his fortune in the crash and the only assets he had left before the bank foreclosed on his 16,000-acre spread were his Hereford cattle. He’d need to sell them all to raise $20,000 to save his place, and in order to sell them he’d need to gather them up. The payments to Peebles/Peebles would come out of the proceeds, he assured them.

Benny said Fritz was enamored with the Oaks Ranch—the grass, the miles of river, the timber, and the magnificent Victorian ranch house that cost Oaks a fortune to build. He told Benny, “This man is living on my ranch but he just doesn’t know it yet.”

Benny didn’t know what Fritz meant at the time, although his partner, he said, always had “illusions of grandiosity,” as Benny put it.

Fritz sent Benny north to Billings to buy fence to build a massive temporary corral for the cattle. While he was gone, Fritz said, he’d fly the ranch and figure out where all the cattle were.

Benny returned to Cody four days later followed by a truck laden with rolls of fence and bundles of steel posts. But Fritz was gone, and so was the Ryan. Wendell Oaks was fit to be tied. Bankers were driving out to his place from Cody to take measurements.

Three days later, while Benny and some locals he’d hired on a day-rate were building the corral, he heard the buzz of an airplane motor. He recognized the sound and looked up to see Fritz Angler landing the Ryan in a hay meadow.

Before Benny could confront his partner, Fritz buttonholed one of the bankers and they drove off together into town. Benny inspected their monoplane and saw where Fritz had removed the co-pilot seat and broken out the interior divides of the cargo area to make more space. The floor of the aircraft was covered in white bristles of hair and animal feces. It smelled dank and unpleasant.

The next thing Benny knew, sheriff’s deputies descended on the place and evicted Wendell Oaks. Then they ordered Benny and his laborers off the property by order of the sheriff and the bank and new owner of the ranch, Fritz Angler, who had paid off the outstanding loan balance and now owned the paper for the Oaks Ranch.

The arch appeared out of the snow and Juan drove beneath it. Parker was relieved to discover how close they were to the ranch house, and just as frightened to anticipate what might come next.

Lyle was wound up. “That mean old German son-of-a-bitch never even apologized,” he said heatedly from the backseat. “He used the airplane my Grandpa owned half of to swindle our family out of this place, and he never even said sorry. If nothing else, we should have owned half of all this. Instead, it turned my family to a bunch of two-bit losers. It broke my Grandpa and ruined my dad and now it’s up to me to get what I can out of it. What choice do I have since you cheated us again in that court?”

“I didn’t cheat you,” Parker said softly, not wanting to argue with Lyle in his agitated state. “There was no proof …”

“Grandpa told you what happened!” Lyle said.

“But that story you told …”

“He don’t lie. Are you saying he lied?”

“No,” Parker said patiently. “But I mean,
come on.
Who is going to believe that Fritz Angler trapped a hundred antelope fawns and flew them around the country and sold them to zoos? That he sold some to Adolf Hitler and flew that plane all the way to Lakehurst, New Jersey and loaded a half-dozen animals on the Hindenburg to be taken to the Berlin Zoo? I mean, come on, Lyle.”

“It happened!” Lyle shouted. “If Grandpa said it happened, it fucking happened.”

Parker recalled the skeptical but patient demeanor of the judge as old Benny Peebles droned on at the witness stand. There were a few snickers from the small gallery during the tale.

Juan shook his head and said to Parker, “I hear this story before. Many times about the plane and the antelopes.”

Parker decided to keep quiet. There was no point in arguing. Lyle spoke with the deranged fervor of a true believer, despite the outlandishness of the tale.

Lyle said, “Look around you. There are thousands of antelope on this ranch, just like there were in 1936. Angler used the plane to herd antelope into a box canyon, where he bound them up. Grandpa showed me where he done it. Angler loaded them into the Ryan and started east, selling them all along the way. He had connections with Hitler because he was German! His family was still over there. They were a bunch of fucking Nazis just like Angler. He knew who to call.

“He sold those fawns for $100 to $200 each because they were so rare outside Wyoming at the time. He could load up to 40 in the plane for each trip. He made enough cash money to buy airplane fuel all the way to New Jersey and back and still had enough to pay off Wendell Oaks’ loan. He did the whole thing in a plane co-owned by my Grandpa but never cut him in on a damned thing!

“Then he started buying other ranches,” Lyle said, speaking fast, spittle forming at the corners of his mouth, “then they found that damned oil. Angler was rich enough to spend thousands on lawyers and thugs to keep my Grandpa and my dad away from him all those years. Our last shot was contesting that old Nazi’s estate—and
you
shut us out.”

Parker sighed and closed his eyes. He’d grown up in Cody. He despised men who blamed their current circumstances on past events as if their lives were preordained. Didn’t Lyle know that in the West you simply reinvented yourself? That family legacies meant next to nothing?

“I can’t take this ranch with me,” Lyle said. “I can’t take enough cattle or vehicles or sagebrush to make things right. But I sure as hell can take that damned book collection of his. I’ve heard it’s worth hundreds of thousands. Ain’t that right, Parker?”

“I don’t know,” Parker said. “I’m not a collector.”

“But you’ve seen it, right? You’ve been in that secret room of his?”

“Once.” Parker recalled the big dark room with floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves that smelled of paper and age. Fritz liked to sit in a red-leather chair under the soft yellow light of a Tiffany lamp and read, careful not to fully open or damage the books in any way. It had taken him sixty years to amass his collection of mostly leather-bound first editions. The collection was comprised primarily of books about the American West and the Third Reich in original German. While Parker browsed the shelves he had noted both volumes of
Mein Kampf
with alarm but had said nothing to the old man.

“And what was in there?” Lyle said. “Did you see some of the books I’ve heard about? Lewis and Clark’s original journals? Catlin’s books about Indians? A first edition of Irwin Wister?”

“Owen Wister,” Parker corrected.
“The Virginian.
Yes, I saw them.”

“Ha!” Lyle said with triumph. “I heard Angler brag that the Indian book was worth a half million.”

Parker realized two things at once. They were close enough to the imposing old ranch house they could see its Gothic outline emerge from the white. And Juan had stopped the pickup.

“Books!” Juan said, biting off the word.
“We’re here for fucking books? You said we would be getting his treasure.”

“Juan,” Lyle said, “his books are his treasure. That’s why we brought the stock trailer.”

“I don’t want no books!” Juan growled, “I thought it was jewelry or guns. You know,
rare
things. I don’t know nothing about old books.”

“It’ll all work out,” Lyle said, patting Juan on the shoulder. “Trust me. People spend a fortune collecting them.”

“Then they’re fools,” Juan said, shaking his head.

“Drive right across the lawn,” Lyle instructed Juan. “Pull the trailer up as close as you can get to the front doors so we don’t have to walk so far.”

“So we can fill it with shitty old books,”
Juan said, showing his teeth.

“Calm down, amigo,” Lyle said to Juan. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

“About a thousand times, amigo.”

Lyle huffed a laugh, and Parker watched Juan carefully. He didn’t seem to be playing along.

Lyle said, “Keep an eye on the lawyer while I open the front door.” To Parker, he said, “Give me those keys.”

Parker handed them over and he watched Lyle fight the blizzard on his way up the porch steps. The wind was ferocious and Lyle kept one hand clamped down on his hat. A gust nearly drove him off the porch. If anything, it was snowing even harder.

“Books,”
Juan said under his breath. “He tricked me.”

The massive double front doors to the Angler home filled a gabled stone archway and were eight feet high and studded with iron bolt heads. Angler had a passion for security, and Parker remembered noting the thickness of the open door when he’d visited. They were over two inches thick. He watched Lyle brush snow away from the keyhole and fumble with the key ring with gloved fingers.

“Books are not treasure,” Juan said.

Parker sensed an opening. “No, they’re not. You’ll have to somehow find rich collectors who will overlook the fact that they’ve been stolen. Lyle doesn’t realize each one of those books has an
ex libre
mark.”

When Juan looked over, puzzled, Parker said, “It’s a stamp of ownership. Fritz didn’t collect so he could sell the books. He collected because he loved them. They’ll be harder than hell to sell on the open market. Book collectors are a small world.”

Juan cursed.

Parker said, “It’s just like his crazy story about the antelope and the Hindenburg. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

“He’s
crazy.

“I’m afraid so,” Parker said. “And he sucked you into this.”

“I didn’t kill your dog.”

“What?”

“I didn’t kill it. I shot by his head and he yelped. I couldn’t shoot an old dog like that. I like dogs if they don’t want to bite me.”

“Thank you, Juan.” Parker hoped the storm wasn’t as violent in town and that Champ would find a place to get out of it.

They both watched Lyle try to get the door open. The side of his coat was already covered with snow.

“A man could die just being outside in a storm like this,” Parker said. Then he took a long breath and held it.

“Lyle, he’s crazy,” Juan said. “He wants to fix his family. He don’t know how to move on.”

“Well said. There’s no reason why you should be in trouble for Lyle’s craziness,” Parker said.

“Mister, I know what you’re doing.”

“But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Juan said nothing.

“My wife …” Parker said. “We’re having some problems. I need to talk to her and set things right. I can’t imagine never talking to her again. For Christ’s Sake, my last words to her were, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’”

Juan snorted.

“Please …”

“He wants you to help him,” Juan said, chinning toward the windshield. Beyond it, Lyle was gesticulating at them on the porch.

“We can just back away,” Parker said. “We can go home.”

“You mean just leave him here?”

“Yes,” Parker said. “I’ll never breathe a word about this to anyone. I swear it.”

Juan seemed to be thinking about it. On the porch, Lyle was getting angrier and more frantic. Horizontal snow and wind made his coat sleeves and pant legs flap. A gust whipped his hat off, and Lyle flailed in the air for it but it was gone.

“Go,” Juan said.

“But I thought …”

“Go now,” he said, showing the pistol.

Parker was stunned by the fury of the storm. Snow stung his face and he tried to duck his head beneath his upraised arm to shield it. The wind was so cold it felt hot on his exposed bare skin.

“Help me get this goddamned door open!” Lyle yelled. “I can’t get the key to work.” He handed Parker the keys.

“I don’t know which one it is any more than you do,” Parker yelled back.

“Just fucking try it, counselor!” Lyle said, jabbing at him with the Colt.

Parker leaned into the door much as Lyle had. He wanted to block the wind with his back so he could see the lock and the keys and have room to work. He tried several keys and none of them turned. Only one seemed to fit well. He went back to it. He could barely feel his fingers and feet.

He realized Lyle was shouting again.

“Juan! Juan! What the hell are you doing?”

Parker glanced up. Lyle was on the steps, his back to him, shouting and waving his arms at the pickup and trailer that vanished into the snow. Faint pink tail lights blinked out.

At that moment, Parker pulled up on the iron door handle with his left hand while he turned the key with his right. The ancient lock gave way.

Parker slammed his shoulder into the door and stepped inside the dark house and pushed the door shut behind him and rammed the bolt home.

Lyle cursed at him and screamed for Parker to open the door.

Instead, Parker stepped aside with his back against the cold stone interior wall as Lyle emptied his .45 Colt at the door, making eight dime-sized holes in the wood that streamed thin beams of white light to the slate-rock floor.

Other books

Displaced by Jeremiah Fastin
Borrowed Baby by Marie Ferrarella
The Flight of the Iguana by David Quammen
Pasha by Julian Stockwin
Black Diamond by Rachel Ingalls
Stalker by Lars Kepler
The Knight in History by Frances Gies